Appearing to Diminish: Female Development and the British Bildungsroman, 1750-1850

By Lorna Ellis | Go to book overview

Epilogue: Growing Up After the
Bildungsroman: Tragic Paradigms

Jane Eyre's exploration of the limits of manipulation as a model of female power sets the stage for the end of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century female Bildungsroman. Although the themes of the female Bildungsroman do not immediately disappear (we see them, for instance, in Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South), there is an increasing emphasis on the limits that society sets on the psychological growth of its heroines. In novels such as George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), the limits of female Bildung are explored. In both novels, the heroines search for an inward truth, but rather than leading to a compromise with society, their self-reflection drives them to break further and further away from societal expectations. As these heroines maintain their right to interpret their own environment, to live by their own view of themselves rather than adopting societal expectations, they lose their ability to compromise in order to live in a hostile environment.

In The Mill on the Floss, the ways in which Maggie's view of herself and her place in the world differs from those around her are carefully constructed through the first half of the book. Like Bildungsroman heroines, Maggie stands out—from her dark skin, unkempt hair, and unruly disposition, to her penchant for reading and learning Latin. And although she tries desperately to please, especially her brother Tom, because she longs for love and social approval, she nevertheless refuses to change her perspective when she thinks that she is right. In an argument between the siblings, Tom questions her ability to act for herself, as well as her motives, but Maggie refuses to bend to his expectations:

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